Jon “Shep” Shephard
Grew up in South Dakota, took to the sea in Hawaii, and now commands UnCruise Adventures’ Safari Endeavor in Alaska and the Sea of Cortez.
What does a captain do? Do you actually steer?
I have the ultimate responsibility for life and property: everyone who’s on the vessel, passenger or crew as well as the vessel itself, and the surrounding environment. The ship that I run is 240 feet long and 40 feet wide—it’s like driving a hotel, so when you have to park that? Or go through the Ballard Locks? I wouldn’t say it makes me nervous, but you’re certainly at heightened awareness levels. The locks have never not felt tight.
What’s your favorite spot in Alaska?
I don’t think that you can go wrong, but you can get to a place where you can literally see a hundred humpback whales.
Be honest, have you ever hit glacier ice?
It’s very, very dense, very heavy ice—it might as well be a floating rock. That used to make me somewhat nervous, and then a captain that I worked with said, “Look at it this way, every single week you contact a fixed object when you dock.” At a very slow speed, yeah, you can nudge ice and push it out of the way.
What makes a good captain?
People picture what they’ve seen on the Deadliest Catch and shows like that, but you don’t go vacationing in places that have 30-foot seas. Rather than me against a brutal ocean, I would say my job is showing pretty good-hearted people some of the best places. You need to be calm, forward thinking; you need to be able to take in your surroundings fairly quickly. But at the same time you need to be adventurous, outgoing. It’s my curiosity that got me into this. I think of myself as a journalist, a storyteller, a scientist, and a little bit of an explorer.
Has rounded the globe on a six-month world cruise as an Oceania Cruises chef and now manages 200 culinary staff on Alaskan routes.
What’s your favorite dish to make on an Alaskan cruise?
Fresh Alaskan halibut dusted with panko and parmesan and lightly panfried and served with a side of green beans with heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, and dill.
What’s different about cooking on a ship versus on land?
You can’t dispatch utility staff to run down the street to the market to purchase an ingredient that you’ve run out of. The biggest challenge with Alaska really has nothing to do with dining. When you go to Rome, you know you’re going to see the Coliseum. But in Alaska, the eagles, whales, and glaciers don’t always cooperate.
What’s it like living with your coworkers in tight quarters?
You don’t mind it after you get used to it. Possibly only someone who has served in the military might understand that such tight quarters forge a unique bond.
Excursion Ground Crew
Worked the past two postcollege summers in operations for dogsled rides, helicopter tours, and zip lines in Skagway.
What are people excited to see when they get off the ships?
Pretty much everything. They’re excited to see the nature. In general they’re great people, but sometimes maybe they’ve been with their family too long.
What kind of things do they ask you?
[Laughs] “Do you take American dollars here?” Some people don’t even know that Alaska is very far from Hawaii; they think it’s next to it. They’ll ask, “Why is Hawaii so warm and Alaska so cold?” Of course, people turn their brains off on vacation.
Will you go back this summer?
Maybe. My dad told me this saying about seasonal work: The first year you go for the adventure, the second year you go for your friends, and the third year you go because you don’t fit in anywhere else.